There was a great discussion recently with representatives of the Protestant/loyalist community about sectarianism and its roots, among other things, and the obvious effects on people and our society. That set me thinking about potential strategies.
Socialists and republicans lay the blame for sectarianism at the door of British colonialism and imperialism, which is correct. (And we know too that Yankee and European imperialism has also a detrimental effect on the standards of living in all of Ireland and around the world.) We blame education and religion—both correct. Class especially is also a major factor.
But the Protestant/loyalist section of our society, though treated as serfs by Big House unionism, largely has little understanding of class. Except in the privileged sense. And all those effects and consequences in the North are self-evident. The question is, How do we begin to, or can we, tackle it?
A lot of bourgeois fixes have been tried over the years, both in education and with employment legislation. But it never seems (or was intended) to gather any real momentum or show any signs of diminishing the cancer of sectarianism. So, what if we looked at at least one of the areas where sectarianism is being used to gain advantage, where it is constantly used as a manipulative tool for frightening people about the “other side”?
That place is in politics here in the North, especially, but again not exclusively, by Sinn Féin and the DUP. So could we start to promote the idea of a people’s participatory democracy, instead of the representative democracy of power, as a method of undermining their sectarianised parliamentary strategies, and also their organised grip on power? Can we build a parallel people’s democracy?
Sectarianism has been and is also used by those who control the wealth of the North (and further afield) to prevent any kind of unity within the work-place, when workers agitate for proper pay and conditions. That’s another area; and there are more. But let us focus on the political arena for the purpose of this article.
If, in principle, we were able to make people aware of their potential power by strengthening their understanding of democratic participation in our local areas and in the first place at the community level, could we pressure and, hopefully, break the politicians’ use of sectarianism to make or maintain political gains—the “vote them in to keep the other side out syndrome”?
They are using sectarianism to secure votes every five years (or less) so that they can control power between them, promise the world, and live in the lap of luxury on the people’s hard-earned taxes. They call it representative democracy . . . hardly too representative: just look around you. By this cruel tactic they fool the people about their actual living conditions and keep their exploitation hidden. The reality of neoliberal capitalism never gets a mention, only the orange or green colours of Northern politics.
The stronger that democratic participation by the ordinary person in the street becomes (by means of a participatory democratic system) the more the people might well begin to see their power growing to influence events in their lives and to expose the trickery of sectarianism. They will experience input and the ownership of their lives. It is worth remembering that the working-class Protestant, the unemployed Protestant and the poorer Protestant is no different from their Catholic equivalents, though they have difficulty rationalising that, which some will admit in discussions.
Nevertheless, all people feel pain, suffering, and exclusion. Brexit and the actions of the British in recent times have shocked the Protestant section of our Northern statelet. And it has hardened sectarianism, creating an even greater reason to break the use of sectarianism by those in power.
Even if only the nationalist elected representatives can be exposed and challenged on sectarianism and forced to desist from it, even in one small council area (e.g. Erne East, Co. Fermanagh), it could easily have a domino effect on other nationalist politicians. Given time, it could well put the local Protestant politicians in an awkward place too if they decide to continue with sectarianism in politics. In fact it could create a dilemma for all the power-brokers in the “political bedfellow” network, to look seriously at their old divisive tactics.
I think we need to build towards an action team or vanguard that begins to get people to expose and confront the use of sectarian politics in the North and other anti-people activities by politicians. Can we work towards a situation where a community group invites politicians to a community hall and, with the evidence in hand, confronts them at election times about what they have not done, and, most importantly, be told what the people want them to do in the future? I think it can be done, and I think the people, with a bit of direction, would be up for it. Why not do this bit on an all-Ireland basis even?
If we keep copious records of the politicians’ failures—and there are and will be many—we could have such a forum ready for the future elections. Any apparent “successes” by them would need to be acknowledged, but only within the context of a “people’s charter,” based on the parameters of a people’s participatory democracy.
We might not have it perfect to begin with but it would be a start, and we would learn something from it. If they refuse to meet—brilliant; they can take what they get after that. So they won’t meet the people—imagine where that could go. It could well be the dynamic for more focused activism.
So how do we get people to journey along with us on this? There is no magic formula. But if we gain the respect of the ordinary citizens by embedding ourselves in our communities and working to improve their day-to-day lives the people will see that we are genuine and want change for them and that we are not vote-catching in order to be elected and join the gravy train. We need to be respectful of our communities, everywhere and at all times. Do not insult or ignore the source of real change and potential power.
But as well as action in our communities we must get people (1) to understand, through publicity, their involvement in workshops on participatory democracy, understanding class and their empowerment, to believe that change is possible, and (2) to understand and have the belief in themselves that they are actually the ones who can make real change happen—contrary to what they are told and educated for; that it is not the politicians, not even us, and certainly not those who pull the levers of power and wealth in favour of themselves, who will drive transformative change. That process of learning will, however, be no easy task.
But, as progressive republicans, socialists, and community activists, that is our duty: to transform society, not to reform it only. That’s what community work must always be about. Thirty years of armed struggle and twenty-plus years of a “pacification process” have done nothing to improve ordinary people’s lives in the North of Ireland. And it certainly has not reduced the cancerous tumour of sectarianism. Left to the politicians and power brokers, it will only get worse.
Maybe there are the very rough bones of a plan here and a potential strategic direction. In the North it would be hard for anyone to be against a strategy for ending sectarianism, except those who benefit from it. The wider population would identify with such a strategy. If it undermined the sectarian strategy of power and empowered the people, what would be wrong with that?
This is by no means a definitive document or a blueprint. We need to read this with an open mind and add or take away from it. Further debate and discussion might help us to see where we can actually go with it, if anywhere.